New Science Links Food and Happiness

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "Captain of the Happier Meal," May/June 2010

Joe Hibbeln, M.D., believes our diet is making us depressed, addicted and violent. He thinks he’s found a simple solution.

"I believe in Joe Hibbeln 's work, it should be actively promoted. A UK study by Nick Fisher of the effects of a one- month high Omega-3 diet on a prison population showed mood improvement. The charismatic wit and humour of both Nick and...

“When the brain becomes deficient in nutrients, the first things to go are mood, the expression of emotion and concentration,” Hibbeln explains. Though the idea of a nutritional deficiency affecting mood isn’t exclusive to omega-3s (the Institute of Medicine mentions depression and irritability as symptoms of numerous nutrient deficiencies, including iodine and vitamin B12), Hibbeln’s theory is unique in that it proposes too few omega-3s—or too many omega-6s—may be at least partly responsible for a national epidemic of psychiatric illness.

Fifteen years after the publication of that first paper, Hibbeln, who is now Acting Chief, Section on Nutritional Neurosciences at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is even more passionate about his hypothesis. Now, he has a growing body of scientific research to support it.

Hibbeln started building his case with broad observational studies and in 1998, he compared fish consumption to the prevalence of major depression in nine countries. He found that in countries with higher fish consumption, like Japan, the prevalence of major depression was lower than in countries with lower fish consumption, like the U.S. In 2001, he showed that among 3,204 Finnish people, those who rarely ate seafood were more likely to suffer symptoms of depression than those who ate it all the time. Later, Hibbeln showed that low fish consumption was also associated with bipolar disorder in 11 countries and schizophrenia in 14 countries. Furthermore, countries where people ate less fish tended to also have higher rates of homicide.

Hibbeln and others soon started testing the theory in clinical trials. The results were compelling enough to prompt the American Psychiatric Association (APA), in 2006, to recommend that people with major depression consume a daily omega-3 supplement in addition to their regular medications. (Recommended daily dose: 1 gram of DHA+EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid, another omega-3 fat in fish. That’s the equivalent of what you would get eating 1 pound of oily fish, such as salmon, every week.) Additionally, the APA suggested that people with other mental-health conditions, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and ADHD, might also benefit from this complementary treatment.

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